Memories are crafted in wool in this tiny Russian republic

In Ingushetiya, a new generation of women is reviving the traditional art of felting rugs.

By Eve Conant
Published 11 Oct 2022, 13:21 BST
When Russian photographer Svetlana Bulatova traveled to Ingushetiya to document the felted carpets called istings, she discovered something much bigger: “Over time, that story evolved into a deeper tribute to the extraordinary power of human connections.” This image combines a young feltmaker’s portrait, a modern felt carpet with an ancient ornament, and the country’s wild mountain nature and ancient castles, many of them destroyed after Soviet authorities deported the populace during World War II. In this photo taken in the village of Khayrakh, young felter Khava Kodzoeva poses with an isting by Zalina Khamkhoeva—both of whom learned felting at a new workshop in the Ingush capital.
Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova

The art of felting carpets—for warming stone homes, for decoration and for cultural expression—has for centuries been a pursuit of women and girls in Ingushetiya, one of Russia’s smallest and southernmost republics. Folk music, paintings, and old photographs have immortalised the wisdom woven into these rugs (called istings in Ingush), which are traditional throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia.  

But in Ingushetiya, the labour-intensive craft had foundered in the decades since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, claiming collusion with Nazis, ordered the deportation of nearly the entire, predominantly Muslim, populace—along with Chechens and other ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union—during World War II.

With the crags and hills of southern Ingushetiya looming behind her, felter Khava Kodzoeva nearly disappears from sight to display an isting decorated with an ornament of the Giltkhoy, an Ingush clan. The isting maker is Zalina Khamkhoeva.
Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova

“It’s as if there is a genetic memory in the hands,” says ethnographer Tanzila Dzaurova of the younger generations that are reviving the ancient woolcraft in Ingushetiya—and in doing so honour and connect with the women who came before them. Here, young felter Khava Kodzoeva poses with an isting in Malgobek, Ingushetiya.

Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova

Decades later, only the elderly remained to fully remember this traditional craft and its symbols, and many of the most beautiful antique examples had been put to more desperate uses: wedged over doors to prevent drafts, used to bundle up children, or sold for food in that time of cold exile in Central Asia.  

“We had already lost so much,” says ethnographer Tanzila Dzaurova of the Ingush Scientific Research Institute of the Humanities, in Magas, the capital. “We had to hurry.” 

She and a small group of specialists from what is now the historical and geographical society Dzurdzuki, including historians, ethnographers, photographers, ecologists, and restorers–guided by enthusiasts on Facebook and other contacts—began scouring their mountainous homeland beginning in 2012. They poured through national archives and family histories, and traveled to collect and catalogue ancient Ingush ornaments, or designs, still visible on stone carvings, petroglyphs, gravestones, and isting carpets. Any memories, guidance, and fragments that remained or had made it back to the homeland, even faded fragments, were key to salvaging the meaning and image of an ornament before it was truly lost to time.  

Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova

But what began as a historical investigation has helped to fuel a booming craft revival, including a new felting workshop and artisan association in the capital that has already trained hundreds of girls and women. Dzaurova, who says her own grandmother “would cry from happiness” if she could see what is happening now, imagines the craft as a thread connecting these new felters to generations of women before them. “It’s as if there is a genetic memory in the hands,” she says. 

Threads of memory 

Now there are classes in schools, competitions, and the book Ingush National Ornament, which documents over a thousand historical ornaments specific to Ingushetiya. Among these are fertility symbols for newlyweds and labyrinthine designs intended to confuse evil spirits.  

Many mythical ornaments predate the region’s conversion to Islam, such as depictions of a tree of life symbolising portals between worlds. Other centuries-old imagery (the oldest recorded examples are from the 17th century) can include symbols of the sun, triangles, and waves. They can represent complicated messages designed to conjure magic and spiritual protections, or to reflect history and memories. In years of epidemics, crop failures, war, and other disasters, says Dzaurova, “ornaments were always asymmetrical.”   

Women comb wool in the highlands of Ingushetiya in the 1920s.
Photograph by Courtesy State Archive of the Republic of Ingushetiya
Tanzila Dzaurova, nurturer to new generations of felters, poses with an armful of sheep’s wool. “By the first impression, Tanzila looks like a mother with a child,” says photographer Bulatova. Bulatova’s focus for her series in Ingushetiya was what she calls postmemory, or “the relationship that the 'generation after' bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before.” The concept is a challenging one. “It’s impossible to illustrate postmemory, but I try. That’s why I combine ancient ornaments and crafts with wild mountain nature, castles, and female portraits.”
Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova

Each carpet not just warms or decorates a home but also tells a story, the designs sometimes particular to one family and passed unchanged through generations of its women. In one Ingush folk song, the lyrics detail how a woman named Pyatimat dreams up an isting that her six daughters help her complete in a field of grass over the span of 12 days. 

Today, even without shearing and dying the wool, as previous generations would have done, the process of layering wet wool (ideally the softest, shorn from sheep in autumn), rolling and shrinking it, cutting and sewing in designs, and trimming the edges is still labour-intensive, resulting in rough hands and raw elbows.  

“Wool is a glorious material and pleasant to work with,” says young Ingush felter Khava Kodzoeva. “Unless, of course, you overdo it!”  

The craft is also a way for women, especially in rural areas, to earn a good income. In centuries past, large carpets were completed by groups of women accompanied at times by musical instruments to keep a light mood and positive energy flowing into the final product.  

The workshop in the capital has trained felters as young as 11 to those in their late 60s. Two of the earliest students from when the venue opened in 2019 were Kodzoeva, who was 15 when she started, and Zalina Khamkhoeva, who was 55.  

The architectural complex Vovnushki (which means "Place of Battle Towers") features four-story towers built to blend into cliffs and is now located at the Jayrakh-Assinsk State Historical Architectural Museum and Natural Reserve. Centuries ago, this tower complex was part of a watchtower system over the Silk Road. Stone homes and towers were often warmed and decorated with isting felt carpets.
Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova
Ethnographer Tanzila Dzaurova poses in a traditional women’s headdress with an isting made by Leyla Bursagova in Ingushetiya’s Dzheirakhsky district. The isting is a modern reproduction of the Ingush national ornament of the 19th century, from the village of Goust. It had been sketched by the artist Gazi-Magomed Daurbekov at the beginning of the 20th century, reprinted in the book Ingush National Ornament, and is now being crafted by a new generation of felters.
Photograph by Svetlana Bulatova

“Unfortunately, I did not grow up when this craft was practiced in every home,” says Kodzoeva, but she says her mother and aunt are beginning to carpet weave. One of her favourite ornaments symbolises women’s well-being. “This ornament has become a symbol of our isting association, because in our association there are only women and women’s well-being is the most important thing for us.” The root of the word “isting” itself relates to the word “woman” in Ingush.

Fellow workshop graduate Khamkhoeva remembers seeing women knitting in the subways as a child, but isting wasn’t a tradition in her home either. “Until the ’40s, this craft was practiced in almost every house, including my grandmothers’. But, during the exile and after returning to the homeland, it was lost. In exile, people survived as best they could—even there, our istings helped them. They exchanged these beauties for a piece of bread or a bowl of curdled milk.”  

Since attending the workshop, Khamkhoeva has developed into a skilled and productive craftswoman, one who finds it hard to leave the “magic” when she has to abandon her felting for other daily duties. Among the Ingush, she says, the craft is “a purely feminine affair,” and she does not have a daughter. But she has two daughters-in-law who are already felting. “And I hope that future granddaughters, with the permission of the Almighty, will also love this craft.”  

A version of this story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Eve Conant is a staff writer and editor for National Geographic. She was previously a reporter based in Russia.

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